In partnership with Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, “First Draft” is a series on everything to do with screenwriting.
Save the Cat practitioners will be familiar with the phrase “the promise of the premise.” Blake Snyder used it to describe the screenplay beat he called “Fun and Games,” in which the crux of the action offered within the screenwriter’s premise really comes into bloom.
But, the premise, of course, has to keep paying off until the end, and it is important for writers to understand how a fully explored premise can make for a more deeply satisfying story. And how an underexplored premise can jeopardize the effectiveness of our screen storytelling.
In this article, then, I will explore how to fulfill the full promise of your script’s premise. This article contains plot spoilers for Nocturnal Animals and the Black Mirror episode “Hated in the Nation”.
In the overall very good Nocturnal Animals, the premise has layers of thematic integrity. The ex-wife of a struggling writer finds herself drawn into the seamy world of his novel, as she sets its terrifying fictional events off against her perhaps unfair treatment of him in the past.
The premise contains big issues of ambition, the submerging of one’s creativity, and most conspicuously, notions of masculinity in an increasingly violent world. However, at film’s end, rather than playing out these threads in a way that leaves the themes resonating, the filmmakers choose to close on a kind of “gotcha”, wherein the book’s author leaves the heroine hanging in a “screw-you” response to her lack of appreciation of him and of herself.
This ending sells out the rich texture of the premise, and leaves us with a distinct feeling of “wait…that’s it?” We were prepared for so much more by a script that was firing on a lot of cylinders, but because the premise didn’t deliver on its promise, we were left with less.
In my previous analysis of the streamlining of the Groundhog Day story from early draft script to its final screen version, it came to light that Groundhog Day was a premise (man relives the same day over and over) so demanding of follow-through that its early drafts included far more permutations of the premise than were even needed.
As a film, it got it just right. It left out certain specifics, most notably why its protagonist was cursed or how many actual days he spent in his purgatory. But it followed such a clear path, of a man who is the living definition of insanity (making the same mistake over and over and expecting different results), that when it ended, it had played out the premise exactly as was appropriate. When our hero’s day finally ends, we share his catharsis.
Science fiction, perhaps more than any genre, demands the full throughline promised by its premise.
The Lobster, for example, does a fine job of exploring all the ramifications of its premise. But it is a story driven by symbolic meaning and an approach rooted more in avant-garde theater than in conventional storytelling.
The genius (a much-overused word that certainly seems to apply in this case) of Black Mirror is that it uses traditional storytelling to paint a landscape of the supposed future so clearly resembling where we are now that the parallels are impossible to ignore.
In lesser hands, this kind of cautionary tale could easily become a preach-fest, but Black Mirror delivers episode after episode of cogent commentary, mixed with riveting storytelling.
And the reason this show pulls it off is that its writers always give the premise its due, making sure to play out all the logical ramifications of the concept. Honoring it, if you will, in a way that seems to place the premise itself at top priority over any other aspect of the script. Once again, this could be a recipe for disaster, but the level of finesse is admirable. Plot and character both serve the premise in an inextricable, symbiotic way.
For the purposes of focusing our analysis, the subject here will be the final episode of season three, “Hated in the Nation”. But one could handpick practically any episode of Black Mirror and find that this adherence to premise fuels the narrative in extremely effective and interesting ways.
As a brief aside, consider the program’s first-season opener, “The National Anthem.” Since the idea behind the episode arises only moments into it, it will not be too much a spoiler to divulge it: When a fictional member of the Royal Family is kidnapped, the ransom demand is that the Prime Minister have sex with a pig live on television.
I remember realizing how much I would come to love this series when I realized that its writer, Charlie Brooker, not only succeeded in undercutting the potential for a ridiculous (and impossible to sustain) farcical comedic approach, but laid out an agonizing series of genuinely moving events that seemed like they could actually happen given the “promise of the premise.” Even a devastating epilogue is added to allow us to think about the human toll of this on-the-surface “absurd” premise.
But perhaps the pinnacle of this approach is “Hated in the Nation.” Imagine, as a writer, being tasked with combining commentary on internet hate, government surveillance, and the extinction of the bee population. One can imagine the amount of ham-fisted, statement-laden storytelling that could result from such a concoction.
Indeed, even using the word “commentary” as an aspect of screenwriting creates a minefield of don’ts. But because Mr. Brooker honors the premise and tracks his story backward from the logical extension of this multi-themed narrative, everything falls into place. The stakes keep raising, and the urgency of the stakes has everything to do with staying true to the premise.
The first key part of the premise that must be integrated—and not simply tacked on as an environmental critique, as some less developed premises might attempt—is the existence of tiny mechanical bees that have been designed to pollinate plants, replacing the now-extinct bee population, and so keeping our ecosystem intact.